Birds of Firle: Raven by Adam Nicolson

Raven - credit Adam Nicolson

“…this sudden blue nearness in my hands, with its sheened and sheathed feathers, overlapped as soft-edged scales, came as a deep unlikelihood.”

A raven is a fount of glory.

When I found one on the road in Crete, hit by a car I think, not shot, the blueness of its feathers first drew me, so unexpected in the bird of darkness, and so unsettling their nearness. Because the raven is a bird of the distance, never to be held, never to be known in any intimate way, but removed in mind as much as in space. Its blackness and its distance are co-actors in its life. And so this sudden blue nearness in my hands, with its sheened and sheathed feathers, overlapped as soft-edged scales, came as a deep unlikelihood, as if it had acquired in death a substance it had only ever hinted at in life.

With this non-raven in my hands, I started to look through it, as if exploring an abandoned house, a habitation that life had left: the hand-axe of its bill, more palaeo than any bird-body I had seen; the ruffled nape; the splay of the primaries, as structural as a medieval vault, no matter wasted, each rib as strong as required, as fine as necessary, graded in width and strength from outer to inner wing and from tip to root.

But then the claw, dirty from life, as knobbled as a malacca cane, the darkness giving way here, as an undertaker’s shoe might when muddied beside the grave, to a leathered practicality, armoured against the world, padded against rock.

The raven disassembled in my hands, became its parts, was not raven, was memory of raven, raven lost, raven gone back from blackness, raven body, raven with no soul.

Adam Nicolson writes books on history and the landscape. He was awarded the 2018 Wainwright Prize for THE SEABIRD’S CRY and his latest book, THE MAKING OF POETRY, was shortlisted for the Costa Biography award 2019.


Birds of Firle is a single edition book by Tanya Shadrick being posted sequentially to 100 collaborators around the world, inviting responses to the idea of Grief and Hope as the things with feathers. Each recipient spends a few days with the book, before returning it with a hand-written letter and other small artefacts.

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